THE HAGUE, Dec 15 (AFP) -
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest legal body, Wednesday dismissed cases filed by Serbia and Montenegro accusing NATO members of genocide during the alliance's 1999 air raids during the Kosovo conflict.
The decision could have ramifications in other ICJ cases.
The court ruled that Belgrade's claims against NATO members Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal should be rejected because Serbia and Montenegro was not a member of the United Nations at the time the complaint was filed in April 1999.
"The court concludes that at the time of filing of the application of the present proceedings ... Serbia and Montenegro was not a member of the United Nations and was not on that basis a state party to the ICJ," presiding judge Shi Jiuyong said.
The ruling that Serbia and Montenegro was not a member of the United Nations could have important ramifications in two complaints filed by Bosnia and Croatia against Belgrade for violating the Genocide Convention.
"It might change the procedural position versus Bosnia and Croatia as well.
Because the issue is again if Yugoslavia (now renamed Serbia and Montenegro) were party to the statute (of the Genocide Convention) and a member of the UN ... If Yugoslavia did not continue the former socialist Yugoslavia's membership ... then there is no jurisdiction against Yugoslavia just as there is no jurisdiction for Yugoslavia against NATO," Tibor Varady, who headed the Belgrade delegation, said Wednesday.
Belgrade has argued in the other genocide cases that because Yugoslavia was not a member of the UN or a state party to the Genocide Convention at the time of the complaints it cannot be prosecuted by the ICJ.
The court rejected those claims in February 2003 for Bosnia but Belgrade's legal experts now hope the court will eventually rule it is not competent in that case either.
"I think it is a procedural breakthrough. I think it creates a basis for equal treatment for all these cases," Varady said.
The court's 15-judge panel reached their decision to dismiss the case against the NATO members unanimously.
The ICJ can only rule on disputes between UN member states, unless they have signed conventions giving the court jurisdiction or two states agree to let the court consider its dispute or if the UN Security Council refers a case for an advisory opinion.
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia filed its complaint in April 1999 during deadly NATO air strikes against military and political targets in Kosovo and Serbia.
Belgrade accused the NATO members of violating the country's sovereignty and breaking international obligations.
Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal also stand accused of deliberately inflicting conditions "calculated to cause the physical destruction of a national group", the definition of genocide.
The NATO air campaign, which was not authorized by a UN Security Council resolution, was launched to protect the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo from attacks by Serb troops loyal to then Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Human Rights Watch estimates that between March and June 1999 some 500 civilians were killed as a result of the NATO bombing campaign. In all over 10,000 people died in the Kosovo conflict.
In Brussels NATO would not officially comment on the court's decision. However, a source at the alliance which would not be identified said NATO "firmly believes" the Kosovo campaign had "sufficient legal basis and was in accordance with the UN charter".